One of the reasons I love working with women at mid-life is because they are getting super clear on who they are and what they want in their life. That clarity comes from two places, generally: shifting hormones and wisdom from having lived 40+ years. There are three issues I work with clients around and that is the third one: time to decide what your life will be.
Getting super clear on who you are at mid-life and what you want your life to be is also a function of being ready to leave behind some of the forms of guilt and shame that society puts on women (especially as we age!). In some ways (not all!) guilt and shame dull our shine. And it’s worth our time to look at them.
Guilt and shame are two different things, even though we sometimes use them interchangeably. Guilt is the feeling we get when we know we’ve done something wrong. Shame is the feeling that, when we’ve done something wrong, we are, deep down, a bad person. And, as women, we get a lot of messages-from various sources- about what we should feel guilty and shameful about.
Off the top of my head, we get guilt and shame for:
- What we wear (especially after a ‘certain age’)
- Whether we use make-up or shave our legs
- How loudly we speak
- Whether we have desires
- How we express our desires
- How and who we form our relationships with (i.e. ‘women shouldn’t have deep male friendships’)
- Whether, how, where, and with who we get angry
- Speaking up for our needs, making our needs the first priority
- Looking, feeling, and acting like we have a menstrual cycle
I’m sure you have your own list!
I usually talk with my clients about this diagram for guilt and shame.
We’ve already defined ‘guilt’ and ‘shame.’ In this diagram, ‘personal’ is the guilt and shame we feel from issues that start at our skin (yes, our skin) and go inwards. ‘Social’ guilt and shame comes from issues that start at our skin and move outwards.
Personal guilt might be feeling that we need to be a ‘nice girl’ even when we’re a little cranky on our period. Social guilt might be feeling like we’re a bad parent if we don’t stay married (even if our marriage is circling the drain). [And yes, we are going to be talking about guilt and shame in The Mermaid’s Dilemma.]
In mid-life we often find that we are ready to leave some types of guilt and shame behind. And I will say ‘hell, yes!’ to most of them (see below). Because many of the social rules that are put on women are ridiculous and keep us not only from our true selves, but also from unleashing our full power to make the world a better place. Yes, when women let go of inappropriate shame and guilt, the world becomes better.
And it’s worth doing the work to let go of guilt and shame (which sometimes is no work at all!) so we can be more free and full and make the world a better place with our wisdom and concern.
Having said all that…there are some places where guilt and shame are appropriate. I know, it sounds crazy- cuz I’m not about the shame. However, the thing about guilt and shame is that they help maintain certain levels and actions of civility in society without making things illegal. For instance, we have social and personal shame and guilt about being racist, sexist, or ageist. We can’t make being racist, sexist, or ageist illegal, but we can make those things shameful because they are wrong. In these cases, shame and guilt serve the purpose of seeing our mistakes and making us better, more accepting people.
When we begin to look at our shame and guilt, we need to think about where they come from and what purpose they serve, and also who is served by our being shamed. Shame and guilt come from many places, and it is very definitely worth our time to dig in and ask some deep questions when we feel shame or guilt. When guilt and shame serve no other purpose than to hold down our brilliance (or the brilliance of others) we can let that stuff go.
[Please note: this is a 700 word essay on guilt and shame. It doesn’t begin to cover the nuances and complexities of these emotions. This is meant to scratch a bit below the surface of these emotions and offer you ideas for deeper investigation.]